2015-11-23

Henderson, Harvard, And Thinking Like A...

David Henderson at EconLog points to an article in the National Review by Heather MacDonald. In it, MacDonald expresses her skepticism that someone as ambitious and driven as a Harvard law student would risk everything to commit a "juvenile prank."

MacDonald writes:

There are few student species more nakedly ambitious, focused, and future-oriented than the average Harvard law student. Having likely spent his undergraduate years planning admissions maximization strategies, he now has the Holy Grail almost within his grasp. Let him but graduate with a Harvard J.D. and he will face a wealth of job offers from prestigious law firms, government agencies, judicial clerkships, and businesses.
And then:

Perhaps there exists a Harvard law student so unable to control his impulses, or so clueless about today’s political environment, that he is willing to risk being expelled and banished from every high-powered job that would otherwise be available to him, simply in order to engage in a juvenile prank. But I am not betting on it. 

Henderson lauds her for "thinking like an economist," pointing out that the incentives are weighted heavily against the commission of the prank.
Ms. MacDonald is thinking like an economist--using reasoning about incentives to make a judgement call. Of course, it's possible that a student with a huge stream of income in front of him/her could make such a bad decision. But it seems unlikely.
Ordinarily, I agree with Henderson on matters such as these. To be sure, his and MacDonald's conclusions are consistent with a typical economic treatment of the issue. Unfortunately, there is a robust literature of social psychology that is at odds with the economic treatment.

MacDonald's analysis is steeped in dispositional reasoning - that "juvenile pranks" are committed by people with a particular disposition, and that Harvard law students are unlikely to possess that particular disposition.

But in 1971, who could have predicted that Stanford law students - who must surely be of an equally ambitious character - would have descended into sexual assault, physical hazing, and verbal abuse in just five days of exposure to the situational pressures of the Prison Experiment?

I can't say that this is what happened at Harvard, but I like Zimbardo's rule: exhaust all situational explanations first before falling back on dispositional theories. It could be that good students caught up in bad situations end up surprising even themselves. It's happened before.